BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 152 (April-June 1995): 163-81
Copyright © 1995 by
"THE LORD WATCHES
OVER YOU": A PILGRIMAGE
David G. Barker
From ancient times to the modern era, life with God
has been viewed as a pilgrimage. Songs, stories, and poems regu-
larly speak about the trust, courage, and vigilance needed in that
One of the most exquisite of such songs is Psalm 121. As a
psalm of trust, it counsels God's people to trust quietly in Him in
all the vicissitudes of life. Through its careful artistry of an-
tiphonal voices, and its movement through question, affirmation,
and blessing, this psalm speaks of God who is both transcendent
Creator and Keeper of the nation as well as imminent Watcher of
each of His people. The result is that pilgrims of faith can receive
strength and courage in the journey through an alien and hostile
world to their destination in Zion.2
1 A Song of Ascents
I lift up my eyes to the mountains.
From where does my help come?
2 My help comes from Yahweh,
Maker of heaven and earth.
David G. Barker is Professor of Old Testament, Heritage Theological Seminary,
1 Of course the classic in Christian literature is John Bunyan's Pilgrim's
2 Cf. Hebrews 12:22-24.
164 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1995
3 He will not allow your foot to slip,
Your Keeper will not slumber.
4 Indeed, He will never slumber,
He will never sleep, the Keeper of Israel.
5 Yahweh is your Keeper,
Yahweh is your shade on your right hand.
6 By day the sun will not harm you,
Or the moon by night.
7 Yahweh will keep you from all harm,
He will keep your life.
8 Yahweh will keep your going and your coming,
From now until forever.
BACKGROUND AND SETTING
SONGS OF PILGRIMAGE
The title of Psalm 121 reads tOlfEma.la rywi--"a song of ascents"
(NIV). The psalm is the second in a collection of 15 psalms with es-
sentially the same title.3 Historically, this title has created a
plethora of interpretations and approaches to this collection of
psalms,4 but recent scholarship has come to a general consensus
that the title points to songs of pilgrimage.5 According to this in-
terpretation, these psalms, among others, were sung in the context
of the great pilgrimage feasts in which the nation was called to
to the pilgrim's ascent of
However, it may also reflect the processional ascents to the temple
by the pilgrims themselves in the final stage of their pilgrimage,
or by the processional choirs who led the gathered pilgrims in
worship and celebration (cf. 2 Sam. ; 1 Kings ; 2 Kings
23:2; Neh. 12:37; Ps. 42:4; Isa. 26:2; 30:29; Jer. 31:6; Mic. 4:2).7
3 The title of Psalm 121 differs slightly from the other 14 in that it has the prepo-
sition l; before tOlfEma.ha. This seems to be more stylistic than anything, since l; can be
used as a circumlocution for the expression of the genitive (E. Kautsch and A. E.
eds., Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar [
129a-h). Leslie C. Allen suggests that this was the original title for the entire col-
lection (Psalms 101-150, Word Biblical Commentary [Waco, TX: Word, 1983], 219).
4 For a survey of such interpretations, see the presentation in C. C. Keet, A Study
of the Psalms of Ascents (London: Mitre, 1969), 1-17.
5 Cf. A. Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, Old Testament Library
(Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 745.
6 These feasts were the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the spring, the Feast of
Weeks in the early summer, and the Feast of Ingathering (or Tabernacles) in the
fall (Exod. 23:14-17; Isa. 30:29).
7 Allen, Psalms 101-150, 219-20.
"The Lord Watches over You": A Pilgrimage Reading of Psalm 121 165
Also these songs are likely to have been among those sung by the
returning exiles from
Most of the songs have
bration,9 and the themes of unity, brotherly love, family, and
prosperity of life were natural expressions of a worshiping pil-
FROM COMPOSITION TO COLLECTION
The final form of this collection of pilgrimage psalms is evi-
dently postexilic, since it includes a postexilic psalm (126, per-
haps also 125). Undoubtedly each song had a different context and
purpose in its initial composition. Genres
include a song of
(Ps. 122), wisdom psalms (127, 128, 133), a royal psalm (132),
thanksgiving psalms (124, 126), songs of trust (Ps. 121, 125, 131),
a praise liturgy (Ps. 134), and lament psalms (Ps. 120, 123, 129,
130).10 However, as the psalms were collected and sung by the
community in the context of pilgrimage, they took on new func-
tions in the liturgy and eventually were stabilized as an identifi-
able collection celebrating pilgrimage.
Liebreich argues convincingly that the 15 psalms in this sub-
collection were chosen to accord with the 15 words of the priestly
blessing in Numbers 6:24-26. Further, he observes that the four
key words used in the blessing (j~k;r,bAy;, j~r,m;w;yiv;, j~n,.Huyvi, and MOlwA) occur
throughout these psalms, which in fact were commentaries on
Several interpreters have linked these psalms with King
Hezekiah and the 10 "degrees" the shadow receded in the court-
yard (2 Kings ).12 The central psalm (Ps. 127) is attributed to
8 To define the songs as referring only to this event (i.e., "Songs of the Repatri-
ated") is too limiting. Further, some of the titles (e.g., 122:1; 124:1; 127:1; 131:1; 133:1)
contradict this notion.
9 Only Psalms 120, 127, and 130 do not have
some kind of reference to
(Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 242.
11 Leon J. Liebreich, "The Songs of Ascents and Priestly Blessing," Journal of Bib-
lical Literature 74 (1955): 33-36. Such intrabiblical development is becoming in-
creasingly recognized as a significant factor in the composition of the Scrip-
tures. Three of the psalms-124, 126, and 131--do not contain one of the key words.
Liebreich suggests that the original collection had only 12 psalms and that these
three were added to bring the number to 15 to accord with the number of words in
the blessing. Cf. Danna Nolan Fewell, ed., Reading between the Texts: Intertextual-
ity and the Hebrew Bible, Literary Currents in Biblical Interpretation (
Westminster/John Knox, 1992); and Udo J. Hebel, Intertextuality, Allusion, and
International Bibliography of Critical Studies (
12 The term tOlfEma occurs in 2 Kings 20:8-11 (cf. Isa. 38:8), which may connect these
psalms to this text and event.
166 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April- June 1995
Solomon, and on both sides of it the flanking seven psalms con-
tain two by David and five anonymous ones, which would have
been reappropriated or composed by Hezekiah (Isa. 38:20).13 This,
in turn, may be related to the 15 steps to the temple and the Jewish
tradition of the levitical practice of singing each song as they as-
cended the steps. 14
The collection evidently has been carefully structured so as to
create a progression. These psalms begin with a prayer of dis-
tress from one who is far from home (Ps. 120) and concludes with
a call to praise in the sanctuary of
PSALM 121 AS A PILGRIM PSALM
Psalm 121 speaks specifically of pilgrimage.16 It celebrates
Yahweh as the One who is the "help" (rz,f,) of the pilgrim on the
journey to home and Yahweh. Yahweh does not sleep. He protects
and guards along the way and watches over the pilgrim's life.
Further, with the prominence of the Exodus motif in the theology
Yahweh in the wilderness journey to the Promised Land.17
Since the psalm can readily be seen as addressing the pil-
grimage of Israelites from their homes in the
it was included in the collection of pilgrim psalms. Further, the
pilgrims would readily identify with their forefathers in the
journey to the Promised Land, the place of the Lord's dwelling.
STRUCTURE OF THE PSALM
The most significant and readily apparent observation re-
garding the structure of the psalm is the change of speaker be-
tween verses 1-2 and verses 3-8.18 Whether the psalm is a
13 See Keet's discussion of this view (A Study of the Psalms of Ascents, 10).
14 Middot 2:5; Sukka 5:4.
15 Other suggestions have been posited over the years. For surveys of these sug-
gestions see Keet, A Study of the Psalms of Ascents, 1-17, and Allen, Psalms 101-
16 Anthony R. Ceresko makes an interesting suggestion that the psalm was origi-
nally a prayer of a warrior (probably the king) who looked to God for help in his
battles in the hills ("Psalm 121: Prayer of a Warrior?" Biblica 70 [19891: 501-10).
17 The Exodus and the Conquest are prominent themes in the Old Testament, in-
cluding the hymnic material. Cf. Eugene H. Merrill, "Pilgrimage and Procession:
Gileadi (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 261-72; and Erik Haglund, Historical Motifs
in the Psalms (Lund: Gleerup, 1984).
18 Most commentators observe this feature, including A. Kirkpatrick, The Book of
"The Lord Watches over You": A Pilgrimage Reading of Psalm 121 167
"dialogue" within the pilgrim's inner self, or an antiphonal song
between pilgrims, or between a pilgrim and someone giving
blessing,19 there is clearly a shift from the first person to the third
person at verse 3. In various analyses, this observation is a con-
stant. Some differences of opinion, however, occur concerning
further structural refinements in verses 3-8.
Allen observes a three-stanza structure: an introductory stro-
phe of two lines (vv. 1-2) followed by two strophes of three lines
each (vv. 3-5 and 6-8). His observations revolve around (a) the
threefold occurrence of the participle of rmawA (vv. 3, 5) balanced by
the threefold occurrence of the imperfect of rmawA (vv. 7-8), (b) the oc-
currence of the divine name at or near the end of each strophe, (c)
the fivefold occurrence of the second masculine singular suffix
(j~, hKA) in both of the three-line strophes, and (d) the relationship of
positive and negative lines.20 Some have suggested a two-stanza
structure based on a cultic liturgy in which verses 1-4 present the
question and supplication of the congregation and verses 5-8
record the response of the priestly choir.21
VanGemeren observes a four-stanza structure moving in a
"stairlike" parallelism in the following fashion:
A. Yahweh is the Creator (vv. 1-2)
B. Yahweh is the Guardian of Israel (vv. 3-4)
C. Yahweh is "Your" Guardian (vv. 5-6)
D. Blessing (vv. 7-8).22
However, a two-stanza structure with identifiable subunits
seems to capture the literary structure of the psalm best. Coupled
with the change in speaker between verses 2 and 3 is the promi-
nence of second masculine pronominal suffixes in verses 3-8 (10
occurrences) compared with their complete absence in verses 1-2.
sity Press, 1906), 736; and Claus Westermann, The Living Psalms, trans. J. R. Porter
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 290. Weiser suggests that in verse 2 the yriz;f,
is due to the "carelessness" of the copyist in repeating the word from the end of the
first line. Therefore the change in speakers takes place at verse 2, "Help comes
from Yahweh ..." (The Psalms, 744, 747). There is no textual support for this emen-
dation, and it makes good sense to retain this confident affirmation in verse 2 as
that of the pilgrim.
19 See discussion below, on pages 169-70.
20 Allen, Psalms 101-150, 153.
21 Weiser correctly observes that this interpretation fails because of the personal
character of the psalm, "which does not admit of a collective, cultic interpretation"
(The Psalms. 746).
22 Willem A. VanGemeren, "Psalms," in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, 12
vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:772.
168 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1995
Both these observations point to a definitive rhetorical shift be-
tween verses 2 and 3, which shift serves as the primary organiz-
ing factor in the psalm, yielding a basic two-stanza structure.
In further defining the structure of the second stanza, the six
occurrences of related terms built on the root rmw are significant.
As already noted, the first three are participles and the last three
are imperfects. However, the three imperfects are grouped in the
last two verses. This points to verses 7-8 as a final blessing for the
pilgrim in the future ("he will keep you/your life/your goings and
Positive and negative statements have also been carefully
used in crafting the second stanza. Verses 3-4 include two nega-
tive statements, verses 5-6 have one positive and one negative
statement, and verses 7-8 (the blessing) contain two positive
statements. The psalmist apparently moved progressively from a
negative statement through a transitional stanza to a final cli-
mactic and positive blessing.
While the psalm falls into a two-stanza structure, each of the
four two-line pairings have been tightly woven together through
anadiplosis, or staircase parallelism.23 In each case the last word
or phrase of one line is repeated or echoed at the beginning of the
next line: yriz;f,/yriz;f, (vv. 1-2), MUnyA-lxa/MUnyA-xlo (vv. 3-4), j~n,ymiy;/MmAOy
(vv. 5-6), j~w,p;na-tx, rmow;yi/j~x,ObU j~t;xce-yrmAw;yi hvAhy; (vv. 7-8).24 Thus the
entire song is carefully bound together internally.25
Superimposed over the entire psalm is an encompassing A-B-
A pattern. An inclusio is formed between verses 1-2 and verses 7-
8 with the use of related forms of xBA and Nmi. This inclusio focuses
on a centerpoint for the entire psalm in verse 5a: j~r,m;wo hvAhy;
("Yahweh is your Keeper").26 Ceresko observes that 58 syllables
precede this phrase and 58 follow it.27 These two words in fact
convey the dominant theme of the psalm as evidenced by the five-
23 E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (1898; reprint, Grand
Rapids: Baker, 1968), 251.
24 W. G. E. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to Its Techniques
(Sheffield: JSOT, 1986), 208-13. Also Ceresko ("Psalm 121: Prayer of a Warrior?" 497)
and VanGemeren ("Psalms," 772) make this helpful observation.
25 Allen observes this feature but uses it to support a three-stanza structure in
that each stanza includes such parallelism (Psalms 101-150, 153).
26 A similar superimposing structure is in Psalm 113. The word "hallelujah"
brackets the psalm as an inclusio and verse 5 is the centerpoint of the psalm. But
the psalm follows the typical hymnic pattern of a call to praise (vv. 1-4), reasons for
praise (vv. 5-9a), and conclusion to praise (v. 9b).
27 Ceresko, "Psalm 121: Prayer of a Warrior?" 499. A similar device is found in
Ruth 1:1-5 and 4:13-17, in which units of 71 words bracket the book.
"The Lord Watches over You": A Pilgrimage Reading of Psalm 121 169
fold repetition of hvAhy; (vv. 2, 5 [twice], 7, 8), the sixfold repetition of
forms of rmawA (vv. 3, 4, 5, 7 [twice], 8), and the tenfold repetition of
j~/hKA (vv. 3 [twice], 5 [thrice], 6, 7 [twice], 8 [twice]).
Thus the psalm seems to be built on a basic two-stanza struc-
ture, with the second stanza crafted into two significant move-
ments. The first of these movements revolves around the particip-
ial form of rmawA and speaks of assurance, and the second revolves
around the imperfect form of rmawA and speaks of blessing. The su-
perimposed inclusio and centerpoint structure helps set the theme
of the psalm.
THE SPEAKERS IN THE PSALM
The rhetorical break between verses 2 and 3 has given rise to
several understandings of who is speaking in the psalm. Mor-
genstern28 and others suggest that the dialogue is within the pil-
grim himself, and a single voice is being heard.29 Appeal is often
made to Psalms 42 and 43 for such a self-address. However, since
"my soul" (ywip;na) does not occur in Psalm 121, it is difficult to estab-
lish the parallel.
More commonly the psalm is interpreted as having two
speakers, that of the pilgrim in verses 1-2, and a second voice in
verses 3-8. This second voice is usually viewed as being that of a
priest or elder confirming or assuring the pilgrim in his opening
affirmation of faith.30 Understanding verses 7-8 as a concluding
blessing to the psalm, it seems that the psalm was a farewell
benediction either as the pilgrim left his village to make his
his home and his daily routines.31 A variant of the two-speaker
understanding is to view the psalm as an antiphonal expression
of pilgrims traveling together in their caravans calling to one
28 Julian Morgenstern, "Psalm 121," Journal of Biblical Literature 58 (1939): 323-
29 Ceresko, "Psalm 121: Prayer of a Warrior?" 498.
30 Cf. A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, New Century Bible (
1972), 851; A. Cohen, The Psalms, Soncino Books of the Bible (
cino, 1945), 420; Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 (
1975), 431; Leopold Sabourin, The Psalms: Their Origin and Meaning (Staten Is-
land, NY: Alba, 1969), 108; and Weiser, The Psalms, 746.
31 Kraus argues that the psalm is a farewell cultic liturgy by a priest giving a
benediction to the departing pilgrims (Hans-Joachim Kraus, Theologie des
Psalmen, Biblischer Kommentar Altes Testament [Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirch-
ener Verlag, 19791, 1012). Others suggest that it may be an entrance liturgy between
priest and pilgrim (e.g., J. W. Rogerson and J. W. MacKay, Psalms 101-150, Cam-
bridge Bible for Schools and Colleges [
170 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April- June 1995
another with opening affirmations of faith and responses of con-
firmation and assurance.32
Whatever the original structure of speakers, apparently the
psalm came to be used in various settings and ways in the life
and faith of the worshiping Israelites. Certainly it could well
have been sung as a dialogue with oneself. Or it is not difficult to
imagine an elder in the village or a priest at
ing a benediction on the pilgrim as he was about to depart. And
one can readily see how the song could have been sung an-
tiphonally by pilgrims traveling to and from
ing pilgrims on their return from exile in
The message of Psalm 121 may be summarized in this way:
The pilgrim on his journey to the dwelling place of God can have
great confidence that Yahweh, the Keeper of Israel, will be his
help and will keep him safe and secure because he trusts in Him.
Title (v. la): A Psalm of Ascents (v. la).
I. The pilgrim speaks: By question and answer he identified
Yahweh as the source of his help (w. lb-2).
A. As he anticipated his journey through the mountains to
B. He affirmed his faith in Yahweh, the Creator of heaven
and earth, as his help (v. 2).
II. The priest33 speaks: By describing Yahweh's watchfulness
over the pilgrim, he affirmed the pilgrim's faith (vv. 3-8).
A. Assurance: He affirmed that Yahweh is unfailing in
His watchfulness over His pilgrim (vv. 3-6).
1. He pointed to Yahweh as an unsleeping Shepherd,
who will not allow the pilgrim to slip on the rocky
paths (vv. 3-4).
32 Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 736.
33 This term is used for lack of a better generic one. The speaker is one who gives
a blessing to the departing pilgrim. There is a range of options for the identity of
this second voice.
"The Lord Watches over You": A Pilgrimage Reading of Psalm 121 171
2. He pointed to Yahweh as an unfailing Protector, who
will stand in strength beside the pilgrim day and
night (vv. 5-6).
B. Blessing: He announced that Yahweh will continue to
keep the pilgrim's life from all harm both now and in the
future (vv. 7-8).34
EXPOSITION OF THE PSALM
I. The pilgrim speaks: By question and answer he identified
Yahweh as the source of his help (vv. lb-2).
A. As he anticipated his journey through the mountains to
contemplated his journey, he looked toward the route and final
destination with both trepidation and anticipation. He "lifts up
his eyes" (ynayfe xWa.x,), a phrase, which, when used with the preposi-
tion lx,, frequently indicates a looking and seeing with some
kind of anticipation of or disposition toward the object (cf. Gen.
39:7; Ps. 123:1; Ezek. 18:6, 12, 15; 33:25).35 In this case it is the
"hills" or "mountains" (MyrihA).
In the Old Testament, mountains were often considered
places of provision and protection (Gen. 19:17; Deut. 33:15) and of
renewal and hope (Isa. 55:12; Ezek. 34:13-14; Joel ; Amos
). However, they were also often viewed as places of loneli-
ness and abandonment (Judg. 11:37-38; 1 Kings 22:17; Lam.
), the haunts of wild animals and birds (1 Sam. 26:20; 1
Chron. 12:8; Ezek. 39:4; Ps. 50:11; 76:4; 104:18; Song of Songs
4:8), the abode of false gods (Deut. 12:2; Hos. ) and enemies
(Num. 23:7; Judg. 6:2), and a place where one could slip and fall
(Jer. 13:16). Metaphorically the term is used to speak of political
powers, both Israelite and Gentile (Ps. 68:16; Isa. 2:2, 14; Amos
6:1; Mic. 4:1). Frequently the mention of mountains brought to
mind God's power in His ability to control and tame these sym-
bols of strength, majesty, and danger (Deut. 32:22; Job 28:9; Isa.
41:15; 42:15; 64:3).36
In this psalm are two broad categories of understanding, one
positive, the other negative.37 From a positive point of view the
34 The separation of verses 7-8 from verses 3-6 reflects the attempt to take seri-
ously the movement from the participle to the imperfect of rmawA .
35 Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English
Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1907), 670.
36 S. Talmon, rha, in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 3:327-47.
37 For a summary of options see Allen, Psalms 100--150, 151.
172 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA /April-June 1995
hills or mountains have been interpreted as a reference to heav-
enly heights,38 a divine title for Yahweh similar to Yahweh's title
as "Rock" (rUc),39 and most commonly a reference to the moun-
hope (cf. Ps. 87:1; 125:1-2; 133:3).40 From a negative perspective,
the hills have been interpreted as the source of danger and hard-
ship for the pilgrim in his journey,41 and/or a reference to the
sanctuaries of false gods found in the mountains.42
Ceresko has correctly noted images of Yahweh's care during
the pilgrimage: God does not let the pilgrim's foot slip (v. 3), and
He is there to guide and protect (v. 5), even from the harmful rays
of the sun and sinister light of the moon (v. 6). These indicate that
the psalmist intended the hills to be viewed as actual hills en-
countered in the journey and that the resting place of the final
times in the psalm, was used by Joshua in recounting the Exo-
dus/wilderness journey (Josh. 24:17), a journey through hills to
the ultimate destiny of
writes, "In singing this psalm, the pilgrims on the way to
culty in imagining themselves as reliving the Exodus experi-
ence of their ancestors who also journeyed to God's `house,' i.e.,
the Promised Land."43
38 P. Voltz, "Zur Auslegung von Ps. 23 and 121," Neue kirchliehe Zeitschrift 36
(1925): 584; Otto Eissfeldt, "Psalm 121," in Stat crux, dum uoluitur orbis: H. Lilje
Festschrift, ed. G. Hoffmann and K.
H. Rengstorf (
lagshaus, 1959), 13.
39 Mitchell Dahood, Psalms III, Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970),
40 Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 121; and C. A. and E. G. Briggs, A Critical
and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Psalms, International Critical Com-
mentary, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Clark, 1907), 2:446. Related to this notion is the view
that MyrihA is a plural of majesty referring to the mountain, namely, Jerusalem (G.
della Bibbia 12 [
41 Weiser, The Psalms, 746; Kraus, Theologie des Psalmen, 1013; and Anderson,
The Book of Psalms, 852.
42 Sigmund Mowinkel, The Psalms in
(Sheffield: JSOT, 1992), 129; cf. Weiser, The Psalms, 746; J. H. Eaton, Psalms, Torch
Bible Commentaries (London: SCM, 1967), 280; and E. A. Leslie, The Psalms
(Nashville: Abingdon, 1949), 215.
43 Ceresko, "Psalm 121: Prayer of a Warrior?" 508. He notes that tB, "house," is a
cipher for the Promised Land. He sees a transformation of the psalm from an early
usage rooted in the prayer of a warrior who knew well that Yahweh's protection
was closely associated with the hills and cliffs of the hill country. Hence the hills,
seen as a positive source of strength, influence its reading as a pilgrim psalm in a
"The Lord Watches over You": A Pilgrimage Reading of Psalm 121 173
There is good reason to read the psalm as including both posi-
tive and negative aspects. As the pilgrim looked to the moun-
tains, he saw them as a place of both fear and hope. They contain
danger and yet salvation. They were the residence of bandits,
animals, and even pagan shrines, but they were also the resi-
dence of the temple and Yahweh.44
As he contemplated his journey, he asked, "From where does
my help come [yriz;f, xboyA Nyixame]?" Some have tried to interpret Nyixame as a
relative particle introducing the statement "from where my help
comes"45 (as in the KJV), thus affirming that the mountains are a
source of help. However, this is not an exegetical possibility. The
term is a compound of yxe, "where?"46 which clearly carries an in-
terrogative idea. The viewing of the hills with their potential for
danger (and hope) has raised the question as to the pilgrim's
source of help.
However, even when viewed as a question, this clause may be
taken as an indirect question, "I lift my eyes to the mountains, to
see from where my help comes."47 As Allen notes, "This exegesis
moves back to a point close to an earlier one which was grammat-
ically unfounded [relative particle] but perhaps instinctively not
distant from the truth."48 This supports the rather ambivalent in-
terpretation of MyrihA, and allows the singer to understand that look-
ing to the hills brought both hope and fear.
B. He affirmed his faith in Yahweh, the Creator of heaven
and earth, as his help (v. 2). The answer to the pilgrim's question
in verse lb comes in a bold affirmation of faith. Repeating yriz;f,,49
44 VanGemeren writes, "Both thoughts may well have occupied the ancient trav-
eller: anxiety and anticipation" ("Psalms," 772).
45 Cf. Allen, Psalms 101-150, 151.
46 Cf. Bruce K. Waltke and M. O'Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syn-
tax (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 327. Morgenstern writes, "As is recog-
nized by all scholars, Nyxm can under no condition whatever be regarded as a relative
pronoun or a relative particle" ("Psalm 121," 312).
47 Cf. T. H. Weir, "Psalm 121:1," Expository Times 27 (1915/16): 90-91, Waltke and
O'Connor write that terms such as these are "locative in reference and strictly in-
terrogative in use, although they occur in both direct and indirect questions" (An
Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 327).
48 Allen, Psalms 101-150, 150.
49 The repetition of yriz;f, should not be viewed as dittography since the two words
begin and end separate poetic lines, and to remove either would make the line un-
intelligible. Some have suggested that, the first-person singular pronoun suffix
should be changed to a second masculine singular pronoun suffix, initiating the
voice of the second speaker in verse 2 rather than in 3. Others opt for dropping the
suffix altogether and make this statement a simple affirmation of a general truth
(see discussion in Allen, Psalms 101-150, 151). However, as Allen notes, since the
structural break occurs at the end of verse 2, the first-person singular suffix
should be retained and exegetically related to verse 1.
174 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1995
the response comes in a nominal clause in which the pilgrim ex-
pressed his understanding that his help is from Yahweh. The
term rz,fe often refers to military assistance and is frequently used
of God's help in battle (1 Chron. ; 2 Chron. ; Isa. 50:7, 9;
63:5). However, in the Psalter the term is used of Yahweh's per-
sonal assistance for the underprivileged (Ps. ; 72:12) and
for the psalmist when in sickness or distress (28:7; 86:17).50 This
latter usage is in view here.
The term Mfime, which expresses "origination or authorship,"51
repeats the Hebrew me (Nmi) from Nyixame in verse 1b, thus providing a
rhetorical as well as a semantic connection to the question just
asked. The emphasis here is an affirmation that the covenant
the One who redeemed
His covenant with her, is the God from whom help comes.
To complete his celebration the psalmist stated that this Yah-
weh is "the Maker of heaven and earth" (Cr,xAvA MymawA hWefo). Such a
fessions of faith (cf. Ps. 115:15; 134:3; 146:6) and spoke of Yah-
weh's power to help.
Because all things are God's handiwork, he has the power to help
whatever might happen; for even now all things are still in his
hand. The distinctive character of the Old Testament concept of
creation comes out clearly here. It ministers not to a theoretical
explanation of the universe but the mastering of a concrete situa-
tion in life in a practical way. It represents not a piece of knowl-
edge but a decision to submit oneself to God's creative will and
This statement forms the foundation for the statements of confi-
dence found in the rest of the psalm.
And so the pilgrim has spoken. He has asked and answered
the question of hope and fear with a conclusion of faith and a re-
ferral of life back to his covenant God and Creator. In his pil-
grimage of faith, autonomy and misguided dependence have
been ruled out, and full trust is placed in God.
II. The priest speaks: By describing Yahweh's watchfulness
over the pilgrim, he affirmed the pilgrim's faith (vv. 3-8).
A new voice chimes in, and the rest of the song may be cast as
the expression of a priest or elder who speaks to the departing pil-
50 Carl Schultz, "rzafA," in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:660-61.
51 Brown, Driver, and Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testa-
ment, 769 (italics theirs).
52 Weiser, The Psalms, 747. Cf. Norman C. Habel, "Yahweh, Maker of Heaven and
Earth: A Study in Tradition Criticism," Journal of Biblical Literature 91 (1972):
"The Lord Watches over You": A Pilgrimage Reading of Psalm 121 175
grim with confidence and assurance.53 The theme of these verses
is readily observed by noting the tenfold occurrence of the second
masculine singular (j~/hKA, vv. 3, 5, 6, 7, 8), the sixfold occurrence
of forms of the root rmw (vv. 3, 4, 5, 7, 8), and the fourfold repetition
of hvAhy; (vv. 5, 7, 8), building off the pilgrim's affirmation in verse
2. By means of repetition the psalmist carefully crafted the priest's speech
around the dominant theme of the psalm, "Yahweh watches over you."
A. Assurance: He affirmed that Yahweh is unfailing in
His watchfulness over His pilgrim (vv. 3-6).54 The psalmist used
two closely related metaphors to describe Yahweh's watchfulness.
The first, that of a shepherd, stresses God's persistent watchful-
ness and care (vv. 3-4), and the second, that of a defender or
champion, speaks of His invincible protection (vv. 5-6).
The participles of rmawA in verses 3-5 are substantial and em-
phasize Yahweh's condition as Keeper.55 As Keeper, He protects
from falls over cliffs (v. 3), remains awake and alert (vv. 3-4),
and protects from danger (vv. 5-6).
1. He pointed to Yahweh as an unsleeping Shepherd who
will not allow the pilgrim to slip on the rocky paths (vv. 3-4).
Yahweh, the Maker of heaven and earth, is viewed in the intimate
and pastoral imagery of a shepherd who leads his sheep along
dangerous paths without allowing them to slip and who never
The poet used a steplike parallelism that increases in inten-
sity from verses 3 to 4 by the use of several rhetorical devices.
First, by using intensifying negatives, he moves from a twofold
usage of negative lxa in verse 3 to a twofold usage of the stronger
negative xlo in verse 4.56 This steplike intensification is
53 The question of the identity of the speaker has been discussed previously.
54 The identity of verses 3-6 as a literary unit separate from verses 7-8 based on
participial and imperfect forms of rmawA has already been noted.
55 See Waltke and O'Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 614-15.
56 The particle lxa usually introduces a negative wish (Kautsch and Cowley, Gese-
nius' Hebrew Grammar, 321-22, par. 109c; and Waltke and O'Connor, An Introduc-
tion to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 567). Kirkpatrick (The Psalms, 737) and Weiser
(The Psalms, 744), retain this idea and render the line as a prayer, "May he not al-
low your foot to slip, may your Keeper not slumber," with verse 4 being the answer
to that prayer. Kirkpatrick even suggests that another voice speaks in verse 4 and
corrects the "wish" of verse 3 with a definitive xlo: "Nay, there is no need for such a
when it is understood that lxa may be used as a straightforward negative expression
and expresses an intensification to verse 4 with the usage of xlo (Cohen, The
Psalms, 420; cf. Gesenius' Hebrew Granmniar, 317, par. 107o-p, 322, par. 109d; P.
Jouon, Granrnzaire de
2d ed. [
1923], 310, par. 114i, k; and Waltke and O'Connor, An Introduction to Biblical He-
brew Syntax, 567 n6).
176 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1995
furthered by the repetition of MUnyA ("slumber") in both lines, first
with lxa and then with xlo. Second, he intensified the names of
God. In verse 3b he referred to God simply as "your Watcher"
(j~r,m;wo), but then in verse 4b as "the Watcher of Israel" (lxerAW;yi rmeOw).
Third, by the interjection "Behold/Indeed"57 at the beginning of
verse 4, he called attention to the unceasing vigil of the Keeper of
He will not allow your foot to slip,
Your Keeper will not slumber.
Indeed, He will never slumber,
He will never sleep, the Keeper of Israel.58
Three times in these verses the pilgrim is assured of Yah-
weh's sleepless vigil. The words MUn (used twice) and NweyA, speak of
sleeping, and with the negative they may be used metaphorically
of watchfulness (cf. Isa. ). Both are also used of the sleep of
death (for MUn see Ps. 76:5; Nah. 3:18; for NweyA, see Ps. 13:3; Dan.
12:2).59 Not only is the pilgrim's God awake and watchful; He is
also alive and well in contrast to Baal, who was taunted by Elijah
as being asleep (1 Kings ).
The final phrase "the Keeper of Israel" (lxerAW;yi rmeOw) is signifi-
cant. The priest mentioned the figure of a caring, careful shep-
herd; he also called on history ("the Keeper of Israel") to reinforce
the pilgrim's confidence. The pilgrim understood that God's care
for His people extends into the present, and "the national tradition
of Heilsgeschichte becomes a paradigm of the pilgrim's personal
experience and trust."60 The Shepherd of the covenant people is the
Shepherd of the covenant person.
2. He pointed to Yahweh as an unfailing Protector who will
stand in strength beside the pilgrim day and night (vv. 5-6). The
second metaphor points to Yahweh as protector or guardian. He is
described as the pilgrim's "shade" (lce) on his right hand. The
term lce can be used both positively as "protection," "shade," or
"defense" (cf. Gen. 19:8; Num. 14:9; Job 7:2; Isa. 30:2-3) or nega-
tively to speak of what is ephemeral or passing (e.g., man's life, 1
57 See Thomas O. Lambdin, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (
Scribner's Sons, 1971), 168-71, for a. discussion of the syntactical usage of hne.hi.
58 Morgenstern sees verse 4 as an intrusive marginal comment that makes a na-
tionalistic comment on the suffix of j~r,m;wo ("Psalm 121," 319). This suggested emen-
dation has no textual support.
59 R. Laird Harris, "MUn" in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:563;
John E. Hartley, "NweyA" in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 1:414; and J.
Schupphaus, "NweyA" in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 6:438-41.
60 Weiser, The Psalms, 748; also see Sabourin, The Psalms: Their Origin and
"The Lord Watches over You": A Pilgrimage Reading of Psalm 121 177
Chron. 29:15, or a sick or sorrowing person, Job. 17:7).61 In this
case the psalmist described Yahweh in the positive sense as a
source of protection and care (cf. Ps. 91:1; Jer. 48:45; Lam. ).
Such protection is said to be on the pilgrim's "right hand"
(j~n,ymiy; dya-lfa). This is a common biblical metaphor that speaks of
both favor and strength (cf. Gen. 48:13-14). Often Scripture
speaks of the "right hand of Yahweh" to describe the power of
Yahweh in delivering His people (e.g., Ps. ; 98:1; Isa.
41:13) as well as His favor and blessing (Ps. ; Matt. 26:64;
Acts 2:33-35). In this case, however, Yahweh is said to be the shade
or protection on the pilgrim's right hand (cf. Ps. 16:8). This was
the place of one's champion or savior. The psalmist declared,
"For he stands at the right hand of the needy, to save him" (Ps.
109:31; cf. 108:6). The pilgrim was fully assured that Yahweh, as
protector and shade (a figure chosen in view of the dangers of pil-
grimage in the blazing sun), would stand by him as a champion
or hero in his pilgrimage to
The specifics are elaborated on in verse 6, which has been
chiastically crafted to focus on the promise of protection:
will not harm you,
or the moon,
The pilgrim is promised protection. from the effects of the
blazing heat of the sun (cf. 2 Kings )62 by day,63 and the sinis-
ter fears of the moon by night. From ancient times the moon has
been viewed as dangerous and ominous, the source of disease and
"lunacy" (cf. selhnia<zomai, "moonstruck," Matt. ; ).64
While the Hebrew pilgrim may well have known from his un-
derstanding of God and the world that such a danger does not ac-
tually exist, it is easy to understand how popular lore and super-
stition would invade and dominate in spite of theological under-
61 John E. Hartley, llacA, in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:767.
62 Commentators regularly refer to the
danger of sunstroke in the
climate (e.g., Cohen, The Psalms, 421; Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 738; and
Weiser, The Psalms, 749).
63 See Brown, Driver, and Briggs, A Hebrew and English. Lexicon of the Old Tes-
tament, 401, for this translation of MmAOy.
64 Dahood writes, "The notion that the moon beamed harmful influences was
widespread in the ancient Near East" (Psalms III, 202; cf.
Psalms, 853; and R. Clements, "HreyA," in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testa-
ment, 6:357). On the use of the New Testament term see J. M. Ross, "Epileptic or
Moonstruck," Biblical Theology 29 (1978): 126-28.
178 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1995
standings to the contrary. The psalm realistically addresses the
mind-set of the pilgrim in his perceptions of dangers and fears.65
The pilgrim was told that the sun or moon "will not harm"
(hKAK,ya-xlo) him. The term hkAnA, meaning "smite, strike, hit, beat,
slay, kill,"66 carries the metaphor of shade and defense (v. 5) to
its ultimate statement. The pilgrim could rest assured of
Yahweh's unfailing protection from the oppression and sinister
elements that would confront him along the way.
The use of the merism67 "sun by day" and "moon by night"
assures the pilgrim that Yahweh will protect at all times, day or
night. Further, it encourages the pilgrim in the knowledge that
Yahweh wants him to entrust all to His loving care day or night.
B. Blessing: Yahweh will continue to watch over the pil-
grim's life now and in the future (vv. 7-8). These two final
verses, while part of the speech of the priest, stand apart from
verses 3-6 as marked by a change from a substantival participial
form of the key thematic term rmawA to an imperfect form.68 The de-
scription of Yahweh as "Watcher/Keeper" now moves to an em-
phasis on the action of "watching" or "keeping."69 This serves to
identify a change in the compositional structure of the psalm,
which moves from affirmation (vv. 3-6) to benediction (vv. 7-8).
The emphasis of these last two lines is that Yahweh will ac-
tively keep or watch over His pilgrim in all circumstances, both
now and in the future. Emphasis is created by the active verbal
use of rmow;yi, as well as by the occurrence of the name of Yahweh
(hvAhy;) at the beginning of each line.70
65 VanGemeren sees only a general reference to the dangers of day and night as
represented by the sun and moon ("Psalms," 773). However, there seems to be more
here in reference to the superstitions and popular fears of the people of the day.
One wonders how many of God's people today still pause to pick up a four-leaf
clover or feel a twinge of anxiety when a black cat crosses the road ahead of them.
66 Marvin R. Wilson, hkAnA in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:577.
67 Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, 435. The observation that a
merism is used here does riot preclude the more sinister interpretation of the role
or effect of the moon.
68 See discussion on page 175.
69 Cf. Waltke and O'Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 496-518,
70 In normal Hebrew prose, the subject follows the verb. Displacement occurs be-
cause of emphasis and/or poetic artistry (C. L. Seow, A Grammar for Biblical He-
An Outline, 2d ed. [
that in this case the psalmist sought to emphasize Yahweh's activity of keeping and
watching. The Qumran scroll omits the second hvAhy; (J. A. Sanders, The
Psalms Scroll [
"The Lord Watches over You": A Pilgrimage Reading of Psalm 121 179
The pilgrim was assured that Yahweh would keep him from
all evil or harm (fra). The term fra conveys both moral (cf. Ps.
41:5; 73:8; 109:20; Mic. 2:1; 7:3; Mal. 1:8) and amoral notions
(Isa. 45:7; Jer. 39:12; Amos 6:3).71 In light of the context of pil-
grimage and concern for well-being on the journey, the amoral
rendering "calamity," "disaster," or "harm" is the better way to
interpret the term here.72 The pilgrim was confident that no harm
or disaster is outside the control and care of God. Cohen observes
that the "all" (lKA) points to the totality and comprehensiveness of
God's protection. "Life exposes man to a great variety of mishaps,
but none are beyond God's sheltering care."73
Further, the psalmist announced that Yahweh will keep the
pilgrim's "life" (wp,n,) from all harm. The word wp,n, is widely rec-
ognized as referring to much more than "soul."74 Rooted in the
notions of "breathing," "appetite," or "craving" (Exod. 15:9; Deut.
; Isa. 56:11),75 the term carries the primary meaning of
"life." But as Waltke observes, it denotes "the living self with all
its drives, not the abstract notion life which is conveyed by
hayyim, nor the other meaning of hayyim which refers to a qual-
ity of existence as well as the temporal notion of being."76 Waltke
develops Westermann's observation that when wP,n, occurs as the
subject of a verb it is usually rendered "`soul" (i.e., desires, incli-
nations), but when it is the object of a verb it is usually rendered
"life," that is, "the state of personal existence over against
death."77 The occurrence here is as the direct object of rmow;yi and the
psalmist is expressing confidence that the pilgrim's "personal
existence" will be kept by Yahweh.
71 G. Herbert Livingston, ffarA, in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament,
72 See NIV; Allen, Psalms 101-150, 151; Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 60-151: A
Commentary, trans. Hilton C. Oswald (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989), 426; and H.
C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), 869. The KJV,
73 Cohen, The Psalms, 421.
74 Cf. C. A. Briggs, "The Use of npsh in the Old Testament," Journal of Biblical
Literature, 16 (1897): 17-30; E. Jacob, yuxh<, in Theological Dictionary of the New
Testament, 9:617-37; and Bruce K. Waltke, "wpanA," in Theological Wordbook of the Old
75 D. Winton Thomas, "A Study in Hebrew Synonyms: Verbs Signifying `To
Breathe,' " Zeitschrift fur Semitistik and Verwandte Gebiete 10 (1935): 311-14; cf.
Waltke, wpanA, in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:587-91.
76 Waltke, "wpanA," Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:589-99.
77 Ibid; cf. Claus Westermann, "wp,n,," in Theologisches Handbuch zum Alten Tes-
180 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1995
Such care is circumscribed in the final line of the psalm. The
pilgrim's "going out and coming in" (j~x,ObU j~t;xce) are under the
watchful eye of Yahweh. This phrase is used elsewhere of going
and coming from town to field for work (Deut. 28:6; 31:2), of car-
rying out duties as a military leader (Josh. ) and as a king
(1 Kings 3:7), and the comings and goings of life in general (2
Kings 19:27; cf. Isa. 37:28). So while the pilgrim was assured by
another merism of God's watchfulness over his pilgrimage from
beginning to end, there is an overtone to this phrase that includes
all of life and its affairs and undertakings.78 God's watchfulness
extends to the daily routines of work and worship in the life of the
pilgrim of faith.
Lastly, the pilgrim heard the assuring words that God's care
extends not just to all places and settings of life, but also to all
time, "from now until forever" (MlAOf-dfav; hTAfame).79 Pious Jews to-
day, as they leave or enter their house or a room in the house, touch
the mezuzah, a small metal cylinder that is placed on the right
hand door post and that contains a piece of parchment inscribed
with Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and -21, and they recite Psalm
121:8.80 God is Keeper, everywhere, now and forever. Such is the
widest possible vista for God's constant help for the pilgrim of
In this beautiful psalm of trust the people of God are encour-
aged to trust Him in the pilgrimages of life. The problem arises
when reality confronts poetic call. Does this psalm guarantee un-
conditional protection from all harm and danger to the pilgrim?
Did believers never suffer from sunstroke or fall into the hands
of bandits? It is apparent that while the psalm speaks of such
blanket protection, the pilgrim must understand that everything
that invades his or her life is under God's watchful care and prov-
idence. The spirit of the psalm is to evoke trust in Yahweh, the
Keeper of the pilgrim, and the Keeper of Israel, the Maker of
heaven and earth. Often things that happen in the life of the pil-
grim would not be his or her choice. But the psalm is not pointing
78 Cohen, The Psalms, 121.
79 On MlAOf as "long duration, antiquity, futurity," see Brown, Driver, and Briggs, A
Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, 761. Cf. Allan A. McCrae, Mlf,"
in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:672-73.
80 Louis Isaac Rabinowitz, "Mezuzah," in Encyclopedia Judaica, 11:1474-75;
Nathan Ausubel, "Mezuzah," in The Book of Jewish Knowledge, 290-91; and Kirk-
patrick, The Book of Psalms, 738.
"The Lord Watches over You": A Pilgrimage Reading of Psalm 121 181
in this direction.81 The direction is upward, toward God. The be-
liever must recognize that life is a gift from God, the Giver of life.
The pilgrim can rest confidently, knowing that God's glory will
prevail, and that justice (FPAw;mi) and righteousness (hqAdAc;) will ul-
The confidence expressed in Psalm 121 is rooted in the
grandeur of the psalmist's vision of God. He is the Maker of
heaven and earth; He is the Keeper of Israel. In spite of the perils
of one's pilgrimage, the believer can exercise trust in the Lord.
God is neither too great to care, nor are God's people too insignifi-
cant to be noticed. This quiet psalm reflects on God who quells the
anxiety of the pilgrim's heart, who watches over him or her with a
shepherd's gentleness and a guardian's vigilance, and who gives
thoughtful benediction to one's daily routines.
81 Psalms of trust must be held in tension with psalms of lament-psalms that
speak of the pain, grief, and suffering found in the pilgrimage. However, even
lament psalms include an expression of praise and trust as the concluding note.
Anderson (Out of the Depths, 76) and Roland E. Murphy (The Psalms, Job, Procla-
mation Commentaries [
tant distinction between "lamentation," which is an expression of grief over the ir-
reversible, and "lament," which is an appeal for intervention by a compassionate
82 This is a crucial point in the exposition of the psalm. Otherwise it becomes
nothing more than pious sentiment. The psalm must remain essentially theocen-
tric and doxological, and one must resist the tendency to move it into anthropocen-
tric domains. Some helpful treatments of the subject of theodicy include D. A. Car-
son, How Long, 0 Lord? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990); Alister E. McGrath, Suffer-
ing and God: Why Me? Why Doesn't God Do Something? Does God Care? (Grand
Zondervan, 1994); C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.
1962); and idem, A Grief Observed (London: Faber, 1961). The terms "justice" and
"righteousness" used here are rooted in the prophetic utterances of the moral and
ethical nature of the messianic kingdom (cf. Isa. 11:4; 28:17; 42:1-9).
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